May 2019

Ozaawindib, the Ojibwe Trans Woman the US Declared a Chief

Ozaawindib’s story reveals important historical realities of queer, trans, and/or Two-Spirit experiences in North America, especially relating to the process of colonization and the erasure of people who did not conform to the accepted dominant standards of gender and sexuality.

By Kai Pyle

On July 16th, 1832, a council meeting was held in the Ojibwe village on Gaa-Miskwaawaakokaag (which had only recently been assigned the English name “Cass Lake”). A group of Americans organized by the Indian agent Henry Rowe Schoolcraft had just returned from the headwaters of the Mississippi River. That morning, Schoolcraft gathered the community together to distribute vaccinations and gifts, and to offer a medal to one of the prominent members of the village, Ozaawindib, who had led the expedition to the headwaters.

In many ways, this scene was unremarkable. It was a common nineteenth century practice for the United States to offer medals to certain Indigenous individuals as a way of declaring them chiefs, usually so they would have an easy figurehead to negotiate with for treaties and land cessions. What made the council meeting on July 16th unique was the recipient. Ozaawindib, also known to the Americans as Yellow Head, was an agokwe: a person who was assigned male at birth but who lived as a woman within Ojibwe society.

When I first read the description of this event in the journals of an army officer who accompanied Schoolcraft’s expedition, I found myself astonished, and kept coming back to one question: why has no one written about this? Why is this story not widely told within LGBTQ and Indigenous histories of the United States? As I began to research her in more depth, something very strange emerged. Ozaawindib was not completely unknown in either field. Yet it was as though there were two Ozaawindibs: one recognized as gender-variant but who was only known for her “disgusting advances” on a white man who had been adopted into the community, and another who was recognized as significant to the Schoolcraft expedition but who was assumed to be a gender-conforming Ojibwe man. Somehow, no one had made the connection that these were the same person.

Today, the fields of queer and trans history are still in the process of finding ways to talk about gender and sexuality diversity among Native people in a way that is neither appropriative nor exotifying. Here I am trying to tell the story of Ozaawindib’s life, not as a way to show the myriad possibilities of gender and sexuality among “primitive” peoples, as some white queer writers have done. Nor am I telling her story so it can be used as a sort of precursor or opening scene which non-Native queer people can inherit after Native people seemingly vanish from the dominant narrative of history. I am sharing her story simply because it is an apt demonstration of how gender diverse Native people were important actors in North American history. Ozaawindib’s story reveals important historical realities of queer, trans, and/or Two-Spirit experiences in North America, especially relating to the process of colonization and the erasure of people who did not conform to the accepted dominant standards of gender and sexuality.[i] Both her story and its subsequent narrative fracturing are symptomatic of larger trends in the history of North American queer, trans, and Two-Spirit peoples.

Ozaawindib appears in a number of different sources by European and American writers in the early 1800s, but the task of piecing together what little we know of her life remains difficult. She was likely born in the mid to late seventeen hundreds as part of the people known as Makandwewininiwag, or in English, the Pillager band of Ojibwe. Her father was Wiishkobak, a leader who held villages in the Leech Lake and Red Lake regions.  Although by 1800 Ozaawindib lived on Gaa-Miskwaawaakokaag near Leech Lake, it is unlikely she was born there, because as late as 1750, Dakota people still lived on Leech Lake—though that would soon change. Since the early 1700s the Ojibwe and Dakota had been engaged in on-and-off warfare as the westernmost Ojibwe attempted to move into the northeastern parts of the Dakota homelands seeking furbearing animals to trade and wild rice beds and maple trees to provide food.

Image 1: A 1836 painting of Wiishkobak, Ozaawindib’s father, by Charles Bird King. Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Arts Museum (https://americanart.si.edu/artwork/wesh-cubb-chippeway-chief-history-indian-tribes-north-america-34925).

Ozaawindib’s early life would have been greatly affected by these wars and migrations. William Whipple Warren, a writer of white American and Ojibwe descent, wrote in the early 1800s that according to oral tradition, in this period among the Leech Lake band, “every man capable of bearing arms became a warrior and had seen actual service.”[ii] In fact, it was not just men who entered battle. According to English fur trader Alexander Henry, by 1800 Ozaawindib was considered a respected warrior herself.[iii]

One of the most widely read sources that mentions Ozaawindib is John Tanner’s autobiography, published in 1830. Tanner, a white man who had been captured as a child and eventually adopted by the Ojibwe, describes an occurrence from around 1800, when Ozaawindib pursued him as a husband. At the time, Tanner reports that she had already had several husbands. Though his adoptive mother apparently encouraged Ozaawindib’s courtship, Tanner disdained her, and when Ozaawindib met another man, Wenji-Dotaagan, she decided to become his third wife instead.

This passage brings up many questions. Throughout the narration, Tanner describes Ozaawindib as “disgusting” and a “creature.”[iv] It is unclear if his disgust stems from his upbringing as a white American or as an Ojibwe. Tanner wrote the book with the help of an editor—was this a way of appealing to white American audiences? Certainly, Tanner’s mother and Wenji-Dotaagan seem to have accepted Ozaawindib without any issue. There are hints, however, that Ojibwe reception of Ozaawindib’s gender status was more complicated than it seems. Alexander Henry’s records suggest, for instance, that Ozaawindib’s father Wiishkobak tried to convince her to take up men’s clothing and roles.[v] Life for an Ojibwe agokwe in the late 1700s and early 1800s was likely more complex than the usual portrayals of Two-Spirit or “berdache” individuals as either universally revered or objects of male denigration. This was a period of change for gender roles and the way they were understood, which would only increase as the government shifted its Indian policy towards assimilation and containment in the later part of the nineteenth century.

Image 2: A portrait of John Tanner, the white man adopted by the Ojibwe who wrote about his encounters with Ozaawindib. Public domain.

In 1832, an indication of these future changes came to Ojibwe country in the form of Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, an Indian agent charged by the government with the task of attempting to calm the fighting between the Ojibwe and Dakota. In mid-June, Ozaawindib and another Ojibwe from Gaa-Miskwaawaakokaag were on their way to the fort at Sault Ste. Marie to inform the Indian agent that a war party from Leech Lake had left for the prairies in pursuit of the Dakota. Around Fond du Lac, at the tip of Lake Superior, however, they ran into the Indian agent himself, accompanied by an expedition of men. Schoolcraft convinced Ozaawindib to turn around and serve as a guide back to Gaa-Miskwaawaakokaag. Ozaawindib guided Schoolcraft and his men to Gaa-Miskwaawaakokaag and then on to Omashkoozo-Zaaga’igan—the lake from which the Mississippi River originated. There, Schoolcraft planted an American flag on an island in the lake and eventually renamed it Lake Itasca.[vi]

After visiting the headwaters, Ozaawindib, Schoolcraft, and the expedition returned to the village on Gaa-Miskwaawaakokaag. There Schoolcraft called a formal council to try to convince the Ojibwe to make permanent peace with the Dakota. At the council, he also presented Ozaawindib with a medal to “designate” her as a chief. According to Schoolcraft, there was no ogimaa (hereditary civil leader) present in the village, but Ozaawindib was looked upon as “the principal man in the band.”[vii]

Image 3: A photograph of Omashkoozo-Zaaga’igan (Lake Itasca), the headwaters of the Mississippi River. Photo by the author.

Considering the disgust expressed by other white writers who encountered Ozaawindib, Schoolcraft’s actions are certainly distinctive.[viii] In turning Ozaawindib into a heroic guide, however, Schoolcraft neglected to mention her agokwe status completely. The only way to tell that this is the same person who once flirted with John Tanner is her name and the fact that her home was described as Gaa-Miskwaawaakokaag and her father as Wiishkobak. Did Wiishkobak finally convince his daughter to take up men’s clothing again? Was she dressed as a man for the purpose of travel or warfare (a practice not uncommon for Two-Spirit individuals in the 1800s)? Did Schoolcraft not recognize her agokwe status, or did he leave it out intentionally? For the most part we can only speculate on these questions.

I have been unable to locate a record of when or where Ozaawindib died. Among white American settlers, her name lived on through the accounts published by Schoolcraft describing his expedition. Though the expedition was in large part intended to end the Dakota/Ojibwe conflicts so that the region could more easily be divided up for land cessions, it became memorialized in history as a scientific endeavor to map the upper Mississippi and its headwaters.[ix] Ozaawindib, remembered in a few minor English placenames around Lake Itasca like Yellow Head Point and Ozawindib Lake, was cast as a brave Indian guide alongside other Indian guides in history such as Sacagawea.

Image 4: A map of the upper Mississippi region by James Allen, an engineer who accompanied Schoolcraft. Courtesy of the Library of Congress. (https://www.loc.gov/resource/g4141s.ct002298/?r=-0.324,-0.064,1.689,0.834,0)

In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, a different part of Ozaawindib’s story would come back to light among non-Native audiences. Beginning in the 1980s, anthropologists started to “rediscover” the fact that many Native societies historically had gender systems which functioned differently than European and Euro-American systems of gender. This was epitomized in the figure of the “berdache,” who was portrayed as a cross-dressing homosexual male or as a “third gender” who was neither male nor female. At the same time, LGBTQ Native people were also organizing and reclaiming these historical roles, and the two groups ultimately came into conflict due to the exotifying nature of the anthropological attention. In 1990 LGBTQ Native people adopted the term “Two-Spirit” both as a replacement for the word “berdache” and as an intertribal queer/trans identity.

Even with these developments, identifying historical figures as Two-Spirit has remained controversial. In part this is due to the inevitable difficulty of labeling any historical figure’s gender or sexuality with a contemporary term. In the case of Ozaawindib, and other Native individuals who lived in gender roles that are clearly outside the bounds of what Europeans and Euro-Americans accepted at the time, this has been especially contested. One non-Native writer wrote an article about Ozaawindib to argue that using “Two-Spirit” is inaccurate because Ozaawindib was more akin to a homosexual male who cross-dressed than to a trans person.[x] Another non-Native writer published an article claiming that Ozaawindib was actually a white Swedish man who lived with the Leech Lake Ojibwe.[xi]

In both of these cases, non-Native writers make claims about Ozaawindib in order to bolster their own agenda. The second author, who published his article in a journal about Swedish-American history, does so in order to make a claim that white Swedes have a part in one of the origin stories of Minnesota. He also follows in the tracks of other white writers who claim prominent Native figures were actually white.[xii] The argument that Ozaawindib was a homosexual male and not a trans or Two-Spirit person, on the other hand, draws on current debates about identity to assert that a category defined by non-Native society (“homosexual male”) is more accurate than one created by Native people (“Two-Spirit”). This is part of a long history of non-Native queer people claiming Two-Spirit people as “ancestors” to non-Native queerness.

Against these offensive and inaccurate attempts by white writers to claim Ozaawindib and Two-Spirit people as a whole for settler purposes, Ojibwe people are also writing back. In the 2016 collection of LGBTQ Native science fiction and fantasy writing, Niigaan Sinclair tells part of Ozaawindib’s story as a way to show the complexities of Two-Spirit experiences.[xiii] A year later, transgender Ojibwe writer Gwen Benaway published an essay which challenged scholars to recognize the kinship between Ozaawindib and the transgender Native women of today.[xiv] It is her call that I take up in referring to Ozaawindib as a trans woman in the title of this article, even though some may call it anachronistic.

Despite two centuries of fragmented and distorted representation, Ozaawindib’s story remains important to Ojibwe people. A full account of her life would place her in even deeper context as an agokwe, a woman who went to war against the Dakota people of Mni Sota Makoce, the daughter of a prominent leader, a U.S.-designated chief in her own right, a woman who liked to drink socially on occasion and who sometimes got in fights, a good hunter and a swift runner, and above all as an Ojibwe person. To define her story only through the disgust of John Tanner or the exaltations of Henry Rowe Schoolcraft does a violence to her and to all the people today that would benefit from hearing her story, especially Two-Spirit Ojibwe people.

Ozaawindib’s story may be unique within United States history. On the other hand, there very well may be other stories of queer, trans, and Two-Spirit Native people out there that have been similarly erased from official narratives. Ozaawindib’s story shows us that Two-Spirit people were historical actors just like anyone else. They too made decisions that impacted the course of history in North America. The way the full extent of Ozaawindib’s life has been erased through the fragmented documents and the attitudes of white American writers is also important, as it reminds us that queer, trans, and Two-Spirit history often is found in the interstices and margins of established sources and narratives. It is up to us to do the work to find those stories.

Kai Pyle is a Two-Spirit Michif and Nishnaabe PhD student in American Studies at the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities. Originally from Green Bay, Wisconsin, they graduated with a BA in First Nations Studies from the University of Wisconsin – Green Bay in 2016. Their dissertation considers how Anishinaabe Two-Spirit people have remembered histories of people like them through the lenses of language, literature, and both archival and oral history. They are also deeply involved in Ojibwe and Michif language revitalization movements in the Great Lakes region and the Canadian prairies. 


Further Reading

[i] I use the term “Two-Spirit” in this article to refer to Native people, both past and present, who live(d) outside the boundaries of dominant white understandings of gender and sexuality. While there are many variations of the definition of Two-Spirit in Native communities, it was in part adopted by queer and trans Native people to replace the term “berdache” in reference to historically gender diverse Native figures. Because of this origin, I find it appropriate to use here.

[ii] William Whipple Warren, History of the Ojibway People, ed. Theresa Schenk (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 2009): 180.

[iii] Coues, Elliott, New Light on the Early History of the Greater Northwest (New York: Francis P. Harper, 1897): 163.

[iv] John Tanner and Edwin James, A Narrative of the Captivity and Adventures of John Tanner (London: Baldwin and Cradock, 1830): 105.

[v] Coues, Elliott, New Light on the Early History of the Greater Northwest (New York: Francis P. Harper, 1897): 163.

[vi] There is controversy over the origin of the name Itasca. Some have claimed it to be a combination of the Latin words “veritas” and “caput,” while Schoolcraft himself told different stories about the name on different occasions. I spoke with several Dakota people with knowledge of their language, who stated that Dakota community members tend to regard it as a Dakota word, though the exact original Dakota form is no longer clear.

[vii] Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, Narrative of an Expedition Through the Upper Mississippi to Itasca Lake (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1834): 236.

[viii] Alexander Henry, for example, calls Ozaawindib “a curious compound” and “troublesome.” Coues, Elliott, New Light on the Early History of the Greater Northwest, 163.

[ix] Rich Heyman, “Locating the Mississippi: Landscape, Nature, and National Territoriality at the Mississippi Headwaters,” American Quarterly 62, no. 2 (2010): 303-333.

[x] David Thorstad, “On ‘Sweet,’ ‘Yellow Head,’ and ‘Two-Spirit,’” MR Online, https://mronline.org/2015/03/24/thorstad240315-html/#_edn15 (accessed 16 May 2019)

[xi] Emeroy Johnson, “Was Oza Windib a Swede?” Swedish American Historical Quarterly 35, no. 3 (1984): 207-220.

[xii] One example of this phenomenon is Blue Jacket, a Shawnee leader who white authors argued was actually a white captive assimilated into the Shawnee tribe.

[xiii] Niigaan Sinclair, “Returning to Ourselves: Two-Spirit Futures and the Now,” in Love Beyond Body, Space, and Time, ed. Hope Nicholson (Bedside Press, 2016).

[xiv] Gwendolywn Benaway, “Ahkii: A Woman is a Sovereign Land,” Transmotion 3, no. 1 (2017): 109-138.

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